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Interview with Vector Illustrator Matthew Skiff

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Read Time: 11 min

Do cartoons, movies, and pop culture from the 80's give you a warm feeling? Do you drop words like "rad" when you see a hot-colored t-shirt design? Well take a look inside the mind of Matthew Skiff who's work is influenced by a nostalgia for that era. He's come a long way since doodling in front of the TV as a kid.

Matthew is trained in graphic design at the university level and is starting to mix his graphic and illustration skills more in his professional work. He regularly creates illustrations for bands and makes professional t-shirt designs. He works in vector, masterfully using a Wacom tablet. He wrote the Vector Plus tutorial, "The Creation of a Winged Vector Monster," and in that tutorial Plus members can dive into his workflow. Matt's work is striking, detailed, and has a drawn feel. Learn more about his work in this interview!

1. Hello Matthew, please tell us a bit about yourself, where you're from, your training, and how you got started in the field? How long have you been illustrating and designing?

I'm from beautiful Colorado, born and raised. I have been drawing since I was little. I would sit in front of the TV and try to draw Batman or Ninja Turtles or whatever was on the TV at the time. As I got older I got really into comic books and originally had the goal of trying to make it into comic books when I got older. I would sit around with a sketchbook and just make up characters for my comic book. Then I realized that getting into that field is incredibly hard to do.

It's very competitive and it takes a lot of work. When I got to college I was just going to be a drawing major, but you can't really do anything with that so I switched my emphasis to Graphic Design and I loved it. Then I started realizing I could combined Graphic Design with drawing and that opened up a whole new world for me. I graduated college in 2008, and when I was done I had no idea what I was going to do. I spent my days e-mailing any local design firm I could find and got no bites.

When I was looking for a job I would just sit and Illustrate whatever would come into my head. Then I got familiar with Threadless and decided to put some designs on there, but they didn't score so well. However by posting my art on there I got familiar with the community and my friend Wotto directed me to Emptees. From then on I've been able to draw a lot of fun and goofy designs and get paid for it. I am so happy that I never got any call backs for design firms, I just can't see myself working like that. I've grown accustom to waking up whenever I feel like it and working when I feel like it. I take full advantage of that.

2. I see a lot of 80s references in your illustrations, from movies, music, cartoons and more? Is most of your inspiration from your childhood? Is there something that pulls you toward all these old school rad graphics?

I feel like when I was a kid, we had the best everything. Cartoons were a million times better, as were movies (especially horror), video games the clothes and if you know me, I just love 80's music. I'm a pretty nostalgic person so I love doing anything that involves something from my childhood. A few years ago I got really big into collecting a lot of old toys like Ninja Turtles, Ghostbusters and stuff and I buy a lot of cartoons on DVD. I'm a pretty big nerd, I try to hide that I am a nerd, but I don't do a very good job hiding that.

3. How did your style evolve? Do you feel your work has a unique feel? With so much competition, could you describe what makes your illustrations stand out? Have you ever struggled with this?

When I used to draw with just paper and pencil, my drawings were very clean, I would try really hard to not make my art look messy or sketchy. That was very easy to translate to the computer with Illustrator. Illustrator makes it incredibly easy to make very clean looking designs. It could be one of the reasons why my Illustrations stand out. However, It's always a constant struggle to still keep my style fresh. I get really bored with the same thing over and over, and I'm currently trying to change my style up a bit but it's incredibly hard, especially when clients want the same style as a design I've previously created, and I have little time to experiment.

4. What do you like most about illustrating and why? Is there anything about the industry you've found difficult?

The best part about Illustrating for me is being able draw the craziest and wackiest ideas. I mean I get to draw blood, guts, skeletons, werewolves, zombies and a whole bunch of other stuff. I get paid for drawing the same kind of things I would draw on my notes during class. However the downside to doing what I do is that it has made drawing feel more like a job and less like something fun.

When I was a kid I would draw for fun all the time, but now the thought of drawing just seems like too much work. Don't get me wrong, I love what I'm doing but sometimes I just dread walking over to my computer to start working. That could be the most difficult thing for me, staying motivated and stoked about the work at hand.

The most difficult thing about the industry is really getting my name out there. It took awhile for people to start coming to me for work, rather than myself searching for people or companies and asking them if they needed any designs. I'm definitely not at the level I want to be at. I want companies like Nike or Burton to flood my inbox with design requests...someday I hope!

5. What does your workstation look like? Are you a 9-5 worker or a night-owl. Do you have a normal or peculiar structure to your workday? Do you enjoy the freedom of freelancing?

My workstation is a complete mess. It's usually littered with receipts from the bar I went to the night before, magazines, books and all that. I have my windows blacked out because I like working in complete darkness. As for my work schedule, it's awful.

I usually wake up at around 1pm or later and then work sometimes until 3am in the morning if I don't do anything at night. I love the freedom of freelancing but it's my downfall as well. There is nobody kicking my butt or motivating me to design, all I got is me. One of these days I'm going to try and work 9-5 and see how that works out, but just the thought of waking up that early seems awful to me.

6. What is it about vector graphics that draws you to use it as your artistic medium of choice? What are the tools and programs that you use to create your illustrations?

The biggest draw to me about vector graphics is the ability to resize any design I want without losing any quality at all. Another positive is the file size is very small compared to using drawing programs like Photoshop. It's the smaller file size that makes sending designs easy and fast, and it doesn't crash my old macbook doing it.

I use a Intuos3 drawing tablet and Adobe Illustrator for almost all of my art. I love the program to death, but I wish it looked and felt a little bit more like using a real pencil and paper like it does in Photoshop or some other non-vector programs.

7. How has your workflow changed over time? Have you gotten quicker at creating illustrations? What's one thing that has drastically improved your workflow?

My workflow has changed drastically. When I first started out I wouldn't do any pre-sketching or anything, I would just dive right in and start drawing. And back then I didn't know I could turn pressure sensitivity on in Illustrator, so I would be using my tablet and pre-existing brushes. It made things very difficult and took me forever to do a design. But now I figured out that I can turn pressure sensitivity on, I do pre sketches and all of this has made things a lot easier and has sped up my work drastically.

8. How do you network? Do you contact clients and make pitches directly? Do you meet people at conferences or online? What's worked for you to connect with clients you enjoy working with? Do you do self promotional campaigns?

Networking is the most important thing. If it wasn't for places like Emptees, I probably wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now. At the beginning, I would contact a ton of companies to see if they would want a design done by me. But now it's gotten to the point where companies and bands are coming after me and asking me for designs.

Pretty much all my contacts have been made through the internet. It makes getting clients very easy, and I'm a very shy person as it is. I don't really like going to conferences or talking over the phone and stuff like that. The best thing I have ever done was post my work on Emptees, having a Flickr account helps great to, as well as a personal website, Blog, etc...

9. Could you walk us through the project "I Wrestled A Bear Once"? How does designing for a CD differ from creating illustrations for t-shirts? Do you like doing one project more than another? Do you see a line between graphic design and illustration?

Doing the artwork for the IWABO CD was one of the funniest things I have done. One day I got an e-mail from Steven (a member from the IWABO band) that told me he needed some artwork for their re-release of their first EP. They had some design firms do some layouts for them and they didn't like them, so they came to me. They didn't have any real direction they just kind of told me to go for it. Didn't have much time to do it, so I just drew the first thing that came to my mind (a bear) and then just went from there. It was definitely a learning experience for me, designing for a CD is much different than a shirt.

I had to learn all the correct dimensions and use templates that I have never seen before. It was very fun though and it was cool to kinda make all the images for the CD, insert, cover and back cover to tell a bit of a story. I also got to combine graphic design and illustration in a whole different way besides just slapping a  name or a logo on top of an illustration. And it's pretty cool to walk in to a store like Best Buy and see the CD there.

10. What's been your most challenging project so far in your career? What was challenging about it? And how did you overcome those challenges?

Doing the IWABO CD was definitely the most challenging for sure. The time restrictions I was under were very stressful, it was this huge project that was just dropped in my lap. It made things hard because I had to completely change my work schedule, put aside a few designs that also had pressing deadlines. But it was for IWABO and I love those guys and I wanted to do it.

11. If you were given a commission to place an illustration on a vintage car of your choice for a showroom display, what would the car be, and what would the illustration look like?

A vintage car to me is anything that is older than me, so I would have to say a 1980's Pontiac Trans Am, like the one in Knight Rider. I've always wanted to own one of those. I'd probably plop on a skull or a zombie with some slime and guts and call it good! Either that or a really sick Phoenix.

12. Thanks for chatting with us Matthew, any parting tips for aspiring creatives hungry to grow professionally? Has there been anything critical to your success?

Draw every single day, it will help out a lot. Also, don't take things so seriously, walk away from the computer and go have fun doing something else. That is what has kept me from not going crazy.

Matthew Skiff on the Web

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